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Back to School Primer: Civil Asset Forfeiture

07 September 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

“Civil asset forfeiture." Trust me, the name makes the practice sound more boring - and less controversial - than it actually is!civil asset forfeiture

TAKE ACTION: Protect Utahns’ private property; it’s time to reform Utah’s asset forfeiture laws!

“Civil asset forfeiture." Trust me, the name makes the practice sound more boring - and less controversial - than it actually is!

In fact, in order to get the point across, reform advocates sometimes refer to the practice by the more inflammatory moniker “policing for profit.”

You may recall that during the 2016 legislative session, we were working with other civil liberties groups to reform Utah’s loose asset forfeiture laws (we got a D- from the conservative Institute for Justice last year, and were shamed in 2014 by renowned progressive police reformer Radley Balko, too).

During the 2016 session, we provided you this helpful FAQ blog to explain what civil asset forfeiture IS, and to outline the problems we have with the practice! We recommend that you brush up on the topic, because civil asset forfeiture is going to be a top priority for the ACLU of Utah in the 2017 Legislative Session, as well.

Asset forfeiture reform is not just a priority for the ACLU of Utah. It’s a major pillar of police reform as advocated by the ACLU across the country, with important reform progress seen recently in New Mexico and California. The need for civil asset forfeiture reform is also mentioned in the national party platforms of BOTH the Democratic and the Republican parties for 2016!

Back to Utah…

For the first time this year (and thanks to past ACLU of Utah legislative work), Utah law enforcement agencies were required to report – incident by incident – whenever they seized a community member’s property under current asset forfeiture laws. The information was then compiled by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, whose full report is available for download at the bottom of this post.

The report confirms our suspicions about how asset forfeiture is actually being used in Utah – in contrast to how the government says it is being used.

Government prosecutors like to assert that asset forfeiture is an important practice for “crippling” large-scale criminal enterprises, by allowing the police to seize property used in the commission of crimes. However, the Utah report shows that property seized by police in our state is more typically:

  • in cash (86.4% of all seizures),
  • in small amounts (average amount of cash seized is $1,324),
  • related to some alleged drug offense (97.5% of forfeitures), and
  • arising from an enforcement stop (only about one-third are the result of arrests, searches or other non-enforcement stop actions).

 

Oh, and the vast majority of all reported property seizures pertain to civil cases only. The person who had her/his property seized is not actually ever charged with a crime, but the seized property defaults to the government's coffers anyway.

So, let's recap.

For the most part, Utah law enforcement agencies are stopping people – in their cars or on the street – and seizing the cash those people have with them, because the police suspect drug use, possession or distribution. Most of these seizures would cost more to recover than the property itself is actually worth (how much of an attorney’s time will $1,324 get you?), so the owner just walks away and the government keeps it.

It’s a pretty sweet deal for government prosecutors, who don’t even have to file criminal charges, but nonetheless get to forward all that seized money and property to state and local agencies for a variety of programs and projects (nearly $3 million in state asset forfeiture grant funds was awarded last year).

The ACLU is not the only entity that finds this cycle of seizing and spending by affiliated government agencies troublesome. We are joined by…oh, most of the general public in Utah.

In 2000, Utah voters overwhelmingly passed a state ballot initiative called the Utah Property Protection Act (UPPA/Initiative B). This was even before asset forfeiture became a hot topic nationally, as related to law enforcement accountability and transparency!

Utah voters clearly were concerned with any government practice that could deprive regular community members of their property without appropriate due process, and voters didn’t want law enforcement agencies using the assets they had seized for their own programs. The perverse incentives were pretty clear to the average person on the street.

That is why Initiative B prohibited the use of any funds from forfeiture by law enforcement. In fact, the UPPA mandated that all liquidated assets from forfeitures be given directly to the Utah Uniform School Fund. But ever since Initiative B passed, law enforcement lobbyists have been chipping away at those important reforms.

In order to protect the reputation of our police officers and restore community trust in law enforcement, we believe it is time to restore and rebuild upon the reforms in Initiative B. Police should not be able to seize and keep property from community members who are not convicted of a crime crime. Additionally, there must be uniform reporting for asset forfeitures (including the racial and demographic information of targeted property owners).

During the 2017 legislative session, the ACLU of Utah and its partners will make asset forfeiture reform a top policy priority - and we will need your help to realize this reform! Please stay tuned for Action Alerts, legislative updates, and additional data on asset forfeiture practices in Utah.

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